Scouting Report: Noussair Mazraoui joins FC Bayern – a game changer for Nagelsmann?
“Now is the right time to say it. We have become champions. And I’m going – absolutely – to a dream club,” Noussair Mazraoui told ESPN after the 5-0 win over SC Heerenveen: “I’m a sensitive boy. I played 17 years for this club. Everyone knows this is my last home game. It felt like a goodbye all day.”
Hasan Salihamidžic confirmed the transfer on Wednesday. “It looks very good. He is a player who has really performed very well over the last few years. One who brings refreshment, who acts with a lot of pressure going forward,” the sporting director told Munich newspaper Merkur: “We know how difficult the right-back market is. He’s the type of player that the whole of Europe was looking for.”
Anyone who has seen Mazraoui play in the Champions League and has read some of the countless portraits published now, the ranks of which this article will join, should already have a clear idea of what kind of right-back the Dutch-born Moroccan is.
However, there is reason for caution. The superficial description that he is a very offensively-minded, fast, technically gifted and strong pressing player is true, sure. However, when talking about wing-backs in a back five, people like to bring up the concept of an inexhaustible runner who strictly stays wide and runs up and down the pitch all the time (“Schienenspieler” in German). A problematic idea as it perpetuates an overly simplified image of a wing-back.
This seems especially true for Mazraoui in light of his strengths. “Today’s wing-backs no longer just run up and down out wide like a train on a straight track,” wrote tactics expert Tobias Escher in his 2021 European Championship diary: “The role of the wing-back has become more diverse. Some are target players in the final third (…). Others act as inverse wingers and move into the middle in front of the penalty area (…). Still others penetrate diagonally into the penalty area to give a cross.”
If Mazraoui were a “rail-bound runner”, he would constantly derail, in a positive way. As a graduate of the Ajax school, he learned different varieties of positional play. More recently, under Erik ten Hag, he also learned elements of the kind of build-up game that Julian Nagelsmann intends to establish, at least in part, at FC Bayern München.
Ajax like to build up in a 2-3 formation, which means two players in defense complemented by three players in midfield who conduct the early stages of build-up play. Especially against deeper defending teams, this structure offers some advantages in the centre of midfield. Mazraoui often acts as a wide and high positioned wing-back. However, his high mobility and willingness to run causes him to sometimes also appear in the centre or in the half-spaces.
Salihamidžic praised his excellent “give-and-go” ability, i. e. the ability to play a pass and immediately sprint forward upfield afterwards. The 24-year-old has mastered many roles. A big advantage is that he was often used in the centre of midfield in his youth and early career. transfermarkt.de records almost 60 games in which he played as a six or eight.
Under ten Hag, he therefore already played in hybrid roles or as a free roaming wing-back. Nagelsmann has tried out several formations in his first year at FC Bayern. Roughly, these can be divided into two categories: 2-3 build-up in a back three with one or two holding midfielders. On Instagram, the Bayern coach proudly showed off his new video screen on the training ground, here showing from the home game against Hertha BSC.
Here you can see the 2-3 build-up, which is also described in the caption of the image of the screen: “engage inside, slightly wide No. 6 active behind the ball, open up red zone”. The red zone refers to the area in the centre that is dangerous for the opponent. It could be described as a somewhat larger No. 10 area centrally behind the centre-forward. From that area, there are many available passing options in all directions and, if necessary, a good starting point for gegenpressing after a ball loss. One problem, however, was that Nagelsmann lacked at least one wide defender who feels comfortable playing in the centre.
Theoretically, the three positions in front of the two-man backline can also be filled with midfield players, but then a more offensively strong player would be missing in the final third.
Mazraoui could become a game changer for the coach for several reasons. The most important is that he can play almost any role as a right defender in any setup. As a high wide player, he brings enough pace, courage and offensive drive. He can dribble (2.8 attempts per 90 minutes, 60.7% success rate) and thus pose a threat by himself, but he can also participate effectively in a fast one-two passing game, which should be interesting in combination with Thomas Müller.
In the same way, he can also be used as an offensive half-space player who pushes diagonally into the centre from the right flank. This makes him more flexible than Alphonso Davies on the left, who is always dependent on the winger in front of him moving into the centre. If Kingsley Coman plays on the right, for example, Mazraoui can ensure that the Frenchman can stay wide.
With his offensive strength, the Moroccan international is definitely a counter example to Benjamin Pavard – but not only. He can also be used in a more reserved manner, for example by acting as a full-back frequently pushing in in a back four. Alongside Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka, he could be an important addition in the right half space to stabilize in a rekindled 2-3 build-up, which Nagelsmann retired during the season.
Pavard and also Josip Stanisic had too many problems in this role. But the picture on Instagram suggests that the coach has not yet shelved this idea. Mazraoui brings more calm under pressure than the present choices in wide defence in the Bayern squad. He can break free more quickly than others thanks to his agility. At the same time, he is a little cleaner and more reliable in his ball handling than Davies, who is sometimes too quick for the ball and always liable to the odd curious ball loss.
Less ideal would be to use Mazraoui as a wide and deep right defender. Mazraoui could play this role in principle because he has a good eye in build-up and is a strong tackler. However, his offensive impact would thus be diminished, taking away from some of his major strengths. A clearly coordinated interplay with Davies would be conceivable: if one of the two is positioned high, the other has to remain deeper.
Mazraoui is an excellent Nagelsmann transfer, both in terms of his skill profile and flexibility. The transition from Ajax to FC Bayern should not be too difficult for the right-back in purely footballing terms – especially as he will have plenty of preparation time with the team, unlike some other new arrivals in the past.
The expectations of him are huge, Salihamidžic also confirmed. But on paper, Mazraoui could indeed prove to be a missing piece of the puzzle. The fact that Nagelsmann had to reconfigure the basic structure of his defence after Davies’ departure was one of the many problems this season. With Mazraoui, he could have simply transferred the Davies-centred offensive style of defence from the left to the right side without having to rebuild in other areas as well.
Apart from tactical matters, FC Bayern also like to talk about more immaterial and elusive issues such as mentality or will. Mazraoui has often proved in his career that he can deal with setbacks.
“I never had the potential for the Ajax pros,” he confessed in 2018 on the YouTube show Bij Andy in de auto with former pro Andy van der Meyde. In 2016, the soon-to-be Bayern player didn’t even get a new contract from the Dutch club. That he nevertheless stayed in Amsterdam had a simple reason: the second team needed players.
“Mazraoui was the only player there in the 2016/17 season who didn’t get a contract and consequently no salary, no bonuses and no car,” Chris Meijer is quoted by the portal Voetbalzone on Spox and Goal. With his strong performances, however, he played himself into the club’s focus and got a new contract. Hardly anyone in Amsterdam has a bad word to say about him.
The fact that he is joining FC Bayern on a free transfer is viewed critically in the Ajax environment. Nevertheless, there was a lot of applause when he was substituted on on Wednesday. That is not a matter of course. Mazraoui is considered down-to-earth, disciplined and likeable. On the personal level, these attributes seem like almost ideal prerequisites for a successful career at FC Bayern.
Up into this point, the Moroccan’s career has had its ups and downs, but it is also one that has him now led to a top club. In Munich, Mazraoui will undoubtedly have to make significant improvements in his consistency and stability.
But he no doubt has the necessary qualities. The departure to his “dream club” FC Bayern could therefore be a launch pad for him personally as well – but, to a certain extent, also for Nagelsmann.